The human cost of clothes

[vc_row][vc_column][vc_column_text]In recent years, the term ‘sustainable fashion’ has become more and more common. But what exactly does sustainable fashion mean? And what do we need to consider to achieve sustainability in the fashion and textiles industry? Here is a brief introductory guide to this important issue:

What is Sustainable Fashion?

When we say that something is sustainable, we mean that it can endure over the ages. When something is sustainable, it must be kind to people and planet. Without care for our world and its population, we risk a descent. We will lose so much that we need and hold dear. 

Unfortunately, the modern fashion industry has a range of problems. Things simply cannot go on in the same way. Fast fashion is a massive problem. Huge quantities of clothes are created each year, and huge quantities of textiles end up in landfill, or polluting our wider environments. 

Fast fashion and synthetic textiles production are heavily reliant on finite materials – like fossil fuels. One day, these things will run out.  But even before they do, the use of these materials and vast amounts of energy contribute to the massive threat of global warming. Using water in an unsustainable way is also a big issue. 

So how to we go about changing things for the better?

Choosing Sustainable Materials

Creating a more sustainable fashion and textiles industry begins by examining the materials that are used to make fabrics in the first place. Fortunately, there are materials that we can choose that are better for people and planet. 

Rather than choosing synthetic materials made from plastic, derived from fossil fuels, we can choose natural, sustainable materials. Cotton is one such natural material – though traditional cotton also comes with its problems. Cotton takes a lot of water to grow, and is also often grown with high levels of harmful pesticides and herbicides. Organic cotton, grown with less water and without harmful chemicals, is a far better option. (Make sure you choose GOTS certified organic cotton.)

We can also consider modern, semi-synthetic materials, like Tencel TM. Tencel is a soft, versatile fabric with great breathability, made from a pulp made from wood pulp or bamboo. 


Another way to move towards a greater sustainability is to choose to use recycled natural materials. Fabrics made from recycled fibre have even less negative impact. Post-consumer recycled cashmere is one excellent example. 

Considering Sustainability Along the Supply Chain

In addition to thinking about the sustainability of raw materials, we must also think about what happens to fibres and clothing/ textiles throughout the whole supply chain. Vast quantities of energy and resources are used not only in initial production, but also in processing and distribution. 

When we are thinking about whether or not certain options are a good choice, therefore, we must think about the entire life cycle of a product from beginning to end. In order to combat climate change and allow humanity and our planet to survive and thrive, we must move urgently towards a zero carbon future. We must think carefully about how each of the choices we make impact out environment. 

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The Human Cost of Clothes

But sustainability is not only about the environment. It is about human beings too. Out transition towards carbon neutrality must not leave anyone behind. Sustainable fashion and textiles must not have a negative impact on the people who work in the industry. Workers’ rights and fair practice are essential to a truly sustainable system. 

Reducing Waste in Sustainable Fashion & Textiles

Finally, we need to think about what happens to clothes and textiles during their use. (We can reduce energy waste by washing clothes only when necessary and drying them on a line, for example.) 

We also need to think about what happens to the fabrics at the end of their useful lives. Natural materials are biodegradable. This means that unlike synthetic fabrics, they will break down naturally over time. Plastic clothing like polyester, nylon and acrylic will remain in the environment for hundreds of years, creating a massive waste problem for future generations to solve. 

We need to stop thinking of clothes and textiles as disposable. We need to refuse, reduce, reuse, repair and recycle. We all need to consider sustainability, and work towards a circular economy. 

One of the key things we can do to create a sustainable fashion and textiles industry is think more carefully about our impact, and what we buy. Thinking about the above is a great place to start.


Creator of the slow living and sustainability blog: She is Awake and NGO founder.


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